Having grown up camping ourselves, of course, we would sleep under the stars with our babies on warm summer nights. We quickly learned (as with everything in parenting), there is quite a bit more planning and packing required to enjoy a backcountry adventure with little ones.  After a few hiccups along the way, we have found our footing and now love a quick weekend or weeklong camping getaway and have put together an essential guide to car camping with toddlers!

Each of our three little ones has been camping before they turned one. The most challenging years seem to be those tricky toddler years. Not quite a tuck-em into the carrier baby and not quite a full-blown kiddo. Our tips below will help. (For a complete family packing list and a few products we love, check out our post “Family Car Camping Checklist”.) And before you book your trip. We have recently stumbled upon HipCamp for finding camping destinations and we are hooked!

Choosing and setting up your tent 

At any budget, you can get a great tent that will keep you protected from the elements (and bugs!). A 3-season tent will work for almost all campers (unless your first trip is in the snow, which we might not suggest). The person count (2/4/6 person sleeping room) is not standardized, pay attention to the floor area, you should aim for around 30 square feet/person.  This is where your little person (or people) definitely count. Unless you enjoy a piled-up and verticle stack sleeping situation, a 2-person tent isn’t going to cut it for a family of 3 or more. Now is not the time to go big. You don’t need a multi-room sectioned tent either, enough space to keep a toddler close, but not on-top of you during the night and some room to move if the weather turns foul.

We suggest a trial run setting up the tent in your yard or basement (wherever you have space). Practicing sleeping or napping in the tent before you take things on the road is also a great idea. For our city-dweller friends and NYC neighbors, do arrive before sundown to get things squared away! If you can put together a piece of Ikea furniture, you can put up a tent!

Sleeping Pad vs Cot 

For your first (or 20th) camping adventure, you might not wish to sleep quite so close to mother earth. We don’t blame you, neither do we! In addition to comfort, sleeping pads create a layer of insulation keeping you warmer on cool nights. If your little one is still in a crib or just out of the crib, bring a pack-n-play. We use our Lotus Guava and love it for babies up to small toddlers. Not only for sleeping, but pull it outside the tent to contain our adventurous toddlers during fire set-up and meal prep. Don’t forget a small towel or tarp for under if you have a similar model.

For adults and bigger kiddos, we love self-inflating foam pads from REI. They are super comfortable and don’t take up an unreasonable amount of space in the car or tent. But most importantly, they inflate themselves! You have enough to do leave this one to science. Push them right next to each other in the tent to keep little ones at arm’s length and yourself cozy and resting easy. We recently used them for the oldest boys when camping on a plywood floor and they were perfect!

Cooking Guide

Preparing for a long day of outdoor adventures, swimming, fishing, and running around in the sun your toddler will need something a bit more than a banana at breakfast or a hotdog or PB&J at dinner to fill their tummy (or maybe they won’t, because… toddlers).  Whatever your menu includes, the tips below hold fast including a few of our favorite camping meals. And of course, our days almost always end with s’mores, (bring extra wipes for quick post-marshmallow clean-up).

  • Coffee!: First things first, the coffee. After a good or not so good night camping with your toddler, you deserve a great cup of coffee. Instant coffee packs are easiest, for a car camping, I like to bring my french press and boil the water in a tea kettle. Every camper has a luxury item, this is mine!
  • Pre-cook/chop/prep: To save yourself the time and stress of watching your toddler inch near the bright fire blaze or off into the woods while chopping veggies and shucking corn (also, bring that pack-n-play!), do as much of your chopping and prep work at home. Frozen meals in addition to being quick are great freezer packs for your cooler (think sloppy joes (or a lentil sandwich stew), chili, meatballs, etc.).
  • Snacks: Bring extra snacks for kids and adults, we have burned a meal or two over the years and once or twice been stranded in our tend through a meal with a pop-up storm. A hangry toddler is a friend to no one.

A few of our favorite camp recipes include breakfast sandwiches, a breakfast skillet, veggie side dishes, pizza pie irons. Sautee leftovers with eggs or wrapped in a tortilla for your last breakfast. Don’t forget salt and pepper, and any non-negotiable condiments (looking at you Cholula!).

Toys, Games, and Entertainment 

Our boys could hunt for scat, and collect rocks and sticks for days on end without ever getting bored.  Camping has endless built-in entertainment for toddlers. One of the things I love most about camping is how creative they become and how little they fight! Even so, when camping with young toddlers bring a few things to make entertaining easier.

  • Bubbles: A little extra soap being splashed onto dirt-covered hands is a welcome event for this mamma.
  • Small jar to catch (and release) fireflies: If your toddler hasn’t tuckered out before dark we love to chase and catch fireflies (fun bit: we have an ongoing debate on what these magic bugs are called… fireflies or lightning bugs, leave a comment to keep the debate alive!)
  • Soccer ball: Our NYC kids love being able to jump right from their bed to grass and kick a ball without 45 minutes of preparations to get to the park. And not just for city kids, a soccer ball is a great way to get the whole family playing and running together.
  • Pad of paper and crayons: For taking notes on animals, making lists of fun things we want to do, etc. A fun and familiar way to keep a toddler close and safe during meal prep or clean-up. We have dipped into the kid’s paper stash to start a fire when the newspaper ran out… sorry boys!

If rain is in the forecast and/or we expect more time in the tent we bring a few extras. A small bag of toy animals and games (we like snakes and ladders and “The Big Box of Games).

Have you braved tent camping with your littles? And the big debate: Fireflies or Lightning Bugs? Leave us a comment below!